“Cartwright, Patrick, 2nd January, 1982, aged 28, Hewer. Killed by a fall of stone. When filling coals at a longwall face, a large stone fell between two slips and killed deceased. The place had been carefully examined by the deputy, and was found to be insufficiently timbered.”
If an asteroid hit our village, the only thing left standing would be my mam’s beehive. That, and her indestructible fake pearl necklaces. You can’t wear real ones around hairspray, and it’s not like we’ve got the money for stuff like that anyway. The coal board would be sniffing around checking she’s not supplementing her widow’s pension with a fancyman.
Fat chance of that. As if any bloke would get a look in when she’s the proud owner of “the only business in our village that didn’t fold during the Miners’ Strike.” If she’s not at work, she’s talking about work. Take last week, for instance. I needed a salon to train in, so I’m Mam’s apprentice now. There’s a big end of term show coming up at college, and me, Lucy, and Gabby are organising it. Mam comes barrelling in from work still wearing her apron and launches off on one:
‘Now, Julie, have you decided what you’re doing for this hair show?’
‘An eighties medley.’
‘Are you trying to send me to an early grave? I am NOT giving up the best part of my Friday to shampoo and set ten of your friends just for it to drop out after thirty seconds under the lights!’
‘Yeah, but – ’
‘Anyway, I thought you were using the girls from Aunty Joan’s Wednesday club? Julie, love, I don’t want to sound blunt, but I can’t imagine Chantelle and Casey from Slimming World are going to be too happy parading themselves in leotards to the music from Flashdance! Wasn’t it Chantelle’s last holiday she broke a trestle table? I wouldn’t care, she wasn’t even sitting on it at the time, she was arm-wrestling!’
‘I know, but if we – ’
‘Julie, I wish you’d have a look at my photographs from Blackpool in seventy-six. Yes, love, I KNOW a ship in full sail on top of somebody’s head’s a lot of work, but you’d stand out! You could use Barbara from the chip shop! She’s offered! She’s got a lovely head of hair! I know that whiff of vinegar clings, but get her shampooed and squirt a bit ‘Shalimar’ round, nobody’ll know the difference.’
‘Mam, I’m not – ’
‘Now: inventory. How many boxes of Kirby grips will you need?Blonde and Brunette?’
‘Two of each.’
‘And hairspray? Bear in mind, it’s a long day!’
‘Six of the large Schwarzkopf.’
‘Six? For eighties’ hair?’
‘I dunno, twenty, then!’
‘That’s more like it.’
Then the telephone rang. Even at home, we have to answer it with:
‘Hello, Maggie’s Hairdressing! Who’s that, sorry? Can you speak up, please, love? It’s a bad line! Silent Night? Are you ‘avin’ a laugh? Oh, SIMON KNIGHT; oh, I am sorry, Simon! Yes, I can fit you in no problem, love. Half five do you? Alright, see you then, love! Bye! Julie, remember to get his money off him this time. That tick list’s longer than a night out with Ken Dodd.’
Listening to Nirvana
And dreaming of Kurt
But my whole future
Rests upon a five-point cut
And my backcombing
Mam trained in the 1960s. That’s when everything changed, right down to how hair was done. Before then, it was just that: done. Then came the great man himself…
‘Honestly, if I walked into her college and shouted “Vidal Sassoon!”, they’d think he was a footballer!’ she’s telling Sonia, my practice model before tomorrow’s precision cutting assessment. ‘Now, Julie, how do we check that a bob is evenly cut?’
I shrug. ‘Spirit level?’
She shoves past me, nose in the air, and stands behind Sonia, looking at her in the mirror. She takes the hair either side of Sonia’s face between her index and middle fingers and her thumbs, and runs them down the length of the hair.
‘Like this. Julie, that’s really not bad.’
Praise from Caesar! This might as well be my nomination for British Hairdresser of the Year. She NEVER tells me I’ve done well. Mariah Carey’s warbling away on the radio, but even that can’t spoil this moment. I, Julie Cartwright, did something NOT BAD!
We don’t even notice Joe the plumber come in. That kind of sums Joe up. When his wife ran off with the bingo caller, my mate Vicky’s dad joked it was because she’d forgotten she even had a husband. Joe set about him and knocked out one of his front teeth. Nobody called him boring after that, but he is hard work.
‘Evening, Maggie…evening, Sonia. Did Julie do that?’
‘Oh, hello, Joe! Yes, she did. Not bad, is it?’
I’m NOT BAD. I hug the words to myself like a puppy at Christmas. Maybe I’ll have a chain of salons, all called Chevaux Jules.
‘Really good,’ smiles Joe. ‘She must take after her mam!’
Joe stops by the next day to fix the leaky guttering over the shop sign. I didn’t think plumbers dealt with guttering. Mam ushers him into the salon when he’s finished and thrusts a cup of coffee at him.
‘Oh, you shouldn’t have,’ he mumbles as she offers him a biscuit.
‘You like gypsy creams, don’t you?’ she asks.
‘Erm, yes…they’re my favourites.’
They both look very red in the face, so I open a window to let out some of the heat from the dryer bank.
‘Do you want to buy a raffle ticket, Joe?’ I ask. ‘The Scouts are raising money for a new hut.’
He fumbles in his wallet for some change, and a photograph falls out. We almost knock heads in the race to pick it up, but I get there first.
With a horrible sickly feeling of mortification, I realise that it’s a photo of Joe and my mam, taken outside York Minster on last year’s parish trip to the Christmas market. I hand it back, and open another window.
When I get home that night, I stomp upstairs and turn the radio on. I open up my photograph album and slide out the last picture ever taken of me and my dad. It was my fourth birthday, and he’s holding onto the seat of my brand new bike as I try to pedal.
Tucked behind the picture is the folded sheet of newspaper reporting my father’s death, which happened a week after the picture was taken. I don’t even remember how I came by it. I search for the words of the coal board’s report.
Killed by a fall of stone.
The report doesn’t mention how he lay in agony with a punctured lung until he could be stretchered out. It doesn’t talk about Mam and Nana rushing to the pit so Mam could go with him in the ambulance. I can just about remember leaving school with Aunty Linda that day, being told your Daddy’s had an accident. Someone giving me a Sindy doll after his funeral.
I trace my fingers over the words, trying to recall the sound of his voice, what he smelled like. I said once that he always smelled of leather and extra strong mints, and Mam told me I was being daft; he’d never worn a leather jacket and he never ate mints.
Mam’s only thirty-eight now, but hasn’t even looked at anyone since he died. I wondered if she still missed him. I thought back to the photograph of her and Joe in his wallet, how she knew what his favourite biscuits were, how she knew how he liked his coffee even though he never has one when he came in for a trim. Three years he’s lived round here and been coming for a haircut every three weeks. It suddenly occurs to me how little hair there is to sweep up after his appointments, and I turn the radio up, slamming the album shut and propping the photo of me and dad up on my bedside table.
‘ “Load up your guns, and bring your friends – ” ’
‘Julie! Turn that racket down!’
I turn it up and shout along. I’ve got tickets to see them next month. It was supposed to be last week, but Kurt’s not well.
‘ “She’s over-bored and self-assured,
Oh no, I know a dirty word…” ’
Next morning, I’m three minutes late getting downstairs.
‘What time do you call this?’
‘I was up late.’
I shrug on my denim jacket. ‘Looking at pictures of Dad. Don’t suppose you’ll remember him; you’re so busy flirting with Joe – ’
She slaps me before she even realises she’s going to. Her hand lashes across my cheek and is up at her mouth in shock in less than a second. She’s never hit me before. I instinctively touch my cheek – it’s burning hot, and her long fingers have left an imprint that’s showing itself even through Max Factor Panstik, but I’m not the one who’s welling up.
‘Don’t you ever speak to me like that again,’ she hisses. Her voice is low, trembling with fury. ‘Do you understand me?’ I can’t reply. ‘Do you understand me?’ she yells.
I nod, and edge past her out the door.
I make it through the morning by keeping my head down – literally, to hide the brand on my cheek. Mam’s always complaining about my “grungy hair” hanging limp around my face, but I suspect that this morning, she’s grateful for it. Not because she slapped me…most of her friends would say I deserved it, but because it would invite questions.
The hairdressers’ is where gossip is trafficked, not where it’s born.
I’m shaking like a leaf when Tricia from college arrives at half-past ten, but I pass my assessment with flying colours, and Manjeet, my model, says her head feels about a stone lighter, so everybody’s happy. Then the begging starts. Tricia never shows up here without wanting a favour. This time, it’s Tina, a girl on my course, who’s failed her permanent waving assessment five times.
‘What do you want me to do, Tricia?’ cries Mam. ‘Dress up in jeans and a Stone Roses t-shirt and take the assessment for her?’
‘Please, Maggie,’ begs Tricia. ‘You know how I hate to fail them!’
‘Five bloody times? What’s she doing? Winding the rods with her feet?’
‘Maggie, you’d be saving my life!’
Mam cocks an eyebrow. She knows she’ll be lucky to get a bottle of Blue Nun out of Tricia as a thank-you. She’s as tight as a crab’s arse, as Mam’s remarked many, many times before. ‘Oh, go on, then.’
‘Oh, thank you!’ Tricia gasps. ‘You’ve saved my life!’ Saved your cushy job nodding at French plaits and asymmetric bobs, more like, I think.
And then, trying to act casual, Tricia asks, ‘Will we see you at Blackpool this year, Maggie?’
Everybody in the salon shifts their attention ever so slightly. Mam was a finalist in the National Hairdressing Federation Championships at Blackpool Winter Gardens three years running – 1977, 1978, and 1979. I was born in 1978 and she competed that year a week over her due date. He waters broke during the judging, and she tried to pass it off as spilled setting lotion. She hasn’t competed since my dad died, that year she was only a semi-finalist, but everyone expects her to.
‘Haven’t decided yet.’ Mam’s grin is rictus. Tricia isn’t fooled. She can sense that Mam is getting a taste for it again. She’s been away for too long.
She specialises in bridal hair. Even now, people come from miles around so she can do their hair for their big day. Those are the days of flasks of soup and bacon sandwiches wrapped in tin foil, of wrinkled finger ends and tiredness that only hits you when you stop for longer than thirty seconds. She even did her own hair when she married my dad – it looked more like architecture than hair; all these twisty little intricate braids and loops, so she looked like Guinevere from King Arthur or something.
Mam put her hair up in a beehive the week after Dad’s funeral, when she reopened the salon, and she hasn’t worn it down since.
Disaster strikes the next day. A pipe freezes, then bursts, and the salon floods. The lino has to be lifted up and binned. Even with three portable heaters and the entire dryer bank on full blast, we have to close. Luckily, it’s midweek – Mam rings around and manages to move everyone to Friday and Saturday. Best get the tin foil and the Thermos out, I say, still trying to creep back into her good books. She ‘Hmm’s slightly, and I write on my hand: bacon sarnies 4 friday. Bacon by way of an apology. Because I haven’t actually said sorry, not in so many words.
I run to the corner shop while Mam’s doing her face and buy her a Crunchie as well.
At midday, I hear the door swing open. It’s Tina from college, the failing student, and Betty, the model. We forgot to telephone them and cancel and there’s no water and Mam promised Tricia she would help her out, even though Tricia can be a right snidey cow who once “forgot” to tell Mam about the deadline for entering the North-West Salon of the Year competition. Mam panics and phones Joe. He says he’ll be round in ten but it doesn’t take him five.
He works a minor miracle and Mam sends me down to the shop for a packet of Wagon Wheels as a sacrificial offering. He stays for a cup of tea while Tina cack-handedly attempts to coax a curl into Betty’s poker-straight hair.
‘She can’t get the end papers to stay on the rod. I’ve never seen anyone try to perm like this, and I’ve been hairdressing for nearly thirty years,’ Mam mutters. It’s the first normal thing she’s said to me since she slapped me.
She straightens up and cocks her chin at Tina, who freezes. ‘Are you left-handed, love?’
Tina blinks uncertainly. ‘What?’
Mam repeats, ‘Are you left-handed?’
She nods slowly, as if she’s afraid she’ll get a smack for admitting it.
‘Why are you holding the bottle in your right hand, then?’
Jesus, the woman’s like bloody Poirot.
Tina swaps the bottle around slowly, untrustingly, and her eyes widen. She can manage it now. Her relief is matched only by her model’s: I pass poor Betty some more cotton wool to wipe away the perm lotion running in a steady stream down her forehead.
‘That’s it! See how much easier that is?’ beams Mam. Tina looks ecstatic. If she wasn’t covered in perm lotion, she’d be hugging my mam right now. It was hairdressing, or answering the phone in an office with her dad and three brothers at the family plant hire firm. And I can’t see Tina, all false lashes and Cindy Crawford Calvin Kleins, sat behind a desk on an industrial estate all day.
‘She really knows her stuff, your mam,’ says Joe. We lean against the cool Formica of the little corner kitchen and watch as Tina rattles through the stack of perm rods at her side.
I look up at Joe’s face. He’s barely smiling, and in anyone else, his expression would suggest that they couldn’t remember if they’d left the oven on or not. I see now why he’s “hard work” when he comes in, and I feel ashamed for trying to make Mam feel guilty.
“Going to be a busy weekend now we’ve moved everyone,’ I say.
‘Yeah? What time will you get finished on Saturday?’
‘Not before five.’ He nods sympathetically. ‘Mam’ll probably need a few drinks by then…probably something nice to eat, too.’ Bloody hell, Joe, I think as he stares quizzically at me, don’t give up your day job.
‘Ok…’ he replies, still looking baffled.
‘She’s not doing anything on Saturday night. And it’s been a while since she had a good night out.’
He’s still not cottoning on.
‘Just…I thought if you weren’t doing anything…she’s not doing anything…’
Joe flushes red. I open a window.
When everyone has finally gone, I can tell Mam wants to talk to me. I start my end-of-day chores so I don’t have to look at her.
‘Julie, love…about yesterday morning – ’
‘I was going to spend the night at Aunty Linda’s on Saturday,’ I interrupt, much louder than I need to. ‘Just if you’d made plans with anyone.’
I ram the wet towels into the laundry bag. ‘Just – if you wanted to go out…if anyone’s made plans with you or something…then you should. You deserve a treat. You haven’t been out properly for ages.’
Mam just stands there, her mouth agape as I turn the lights off and toss her the keys. ‘Got you a Crunchie,’ I mumble, handing her the chocolate bar, and she brushes my scraggy blonde hair behind the ear with the helix piercing she hit the roof over last year, and kisses me on the forehead.
When I peek out of Aunty Linda’s sitting room window on Saturday night and see Joe walk over to our side of the street to pick Mam up, I notice she’s already waiting for him. She’s not wearing her pearls; instead, in the light of the full moon and the street lamp, I can just make out a little crystal pendant that I don’t recognise. She’s ditched the beehive, and is wearing her dark hair down.